“It’s not okay to tell someone to study something because it’s on a test. It’s only okay if they’ll use it again and again,” said Coleman. “Nothing you should do, we say to students today, should be to prepare just for the SAT.”
As the SAT strives to appeal to a wider student audience, the College Board has been more active in presenting it as an affordable and more relevant exam. Students who receive fee waivers to take the test are now automatically eligible for fee waivers to apply to four participating colleges of their choice—an average perk worth more than $150. A texting program run by the College Board nudges students to fill out important financial-aid forms. The College Board also mails students colorful guides to take advantage of public assistance for higher education.
And the College Board is arguing that the new SAT more accurately reflects what students learn in school, rebuffing criticism that acing the SAT requires mastering a separate curriculum through expensive test-prep services. Elite preparation centers can charge $1,000 an hour to coach students to score high on the exam. Entry-level prices for SAT practice through popular test-prep centers can start at $750—nearly a week’s pay for the median household income.
“If you’re wondering who should be worried about this new exam, I’ll be rather frank,” Coleman said. “Certainly not students. The changes we’ve made to this exam are welcoming to them. But it may be test-prep executives that are beginning to see a changing game.”
The College Board recently partnered with the online education nonprofit Khan Academy to train students on testing fundamentals and provide practice questions with detailed answers. Students can also download a free new SAT app to their smartphones and snap photos of their answers on paper-and-pencil practice tests that are then scored within a minute. Coleman says the answers can be sent to Khan Academy, which will provide feedback to help the student improve. The partnership has also generated a free training portal specifically for the redesigned SAT.
Some testing experts have pointed out that the new SAT is modeled around the Common Core standards adopted by more than 40 states. Before joining College Board, Coleman was seen as one of the architects of the common standards. But the link between the SAT and high-school learning standards extends beyond his connection to both.
The SAT in recent years has also become the main assessment used in some states to measure how much high-school students have learned. SAT’s chief competitor, the ACT, is also in the high-stakes test market. The ACT recently overtook the SAT as the most popular college-entrance test in the country, which some analysts believe animated the College Board to secure more state-testing contracts.
Where the College Board or ACT may see a natural alignment of testing and school curriculum, others see a grab for dollars. “Follow the money,” said Bob Schaeffer, the public-education director of FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing. “This is a marketing war between two companies who have figured out correctly that it’s a lot more cost-efficient to sell tests to state education officials and use taxpayer money to pay for testing every kid in this state rather than signing up parents and kids one-on-one and having to process 1.8 million credit cards each year.”